College and university commencements kicked off in grand style this past weekend with momentous events at large stadiums and with the most distinguished and most popular guest speakers – and families, too – in attendance.
At Duke University, keynote speaker and singer-songwriter John Legend put in perspective this most challenging time for students at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., and the importance of being able to celebrate together again more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“I’m feeling good because this is the first time I’ve been in front of a live audience, hearing live applause, since last February, 14 months ago,” Legend, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who also earned an honorary doctorate degree from Duke, told graduates on Sunday. “Being together is the point. Being joyous is the point. Celebrating is the point. We have so few moments to enjoy these rites of passage today is one of those moments. After a year when we could barely gather at all, it takes on a special meaning.”
While there were a few institutions that still conducted festivities virtually – including a unique hybrid ceremony at the University of Michigan’s 100,000-seat Big House on Saturday – a few opened like Duke with face-to-face, protocol-filled events where students got the chance to walk across the stage and be honored. Maybe none was more dramatic than the first of several upcoming commencements at Fenway Park in Boston, where Bentley University celebrated its graduating class at the historic venue.
For the 941 undergraduate students who were being lauded, the feeling was overwhelming – especially seeing the iconic Green Monster scoreboard displaying “Congrats Bentley” instead of runs scored.
“In a time where we have lost so much, it can be hard to appreciate what we have,” Courtney Woronka, Bentley’s senior class president, told the crowd. “We came back for our final year, and while it seemed literally more distant than ever, we actually came together closer than ever before and cemented our class’s legacy at Bentley. As I have reflected with seniors at the end of this year, the overwhelming sentiment is this: We are so proud to have navigated through every obstacle and unexpected challenge while sustaining the joy of our senior year in new ways. We never gave up, and I will always be proud to be a part of this class.”
Bentley also held a second virtual ceremony for the Class of 2020 this past weekend. Fenway Park, meanwhile, will host ceremonies for Northeastern University, Suffolk University and Emerson College in the coming days.
From Miami – where 4,500 Miami Dade Community College students were honored in three separate ceremonies at loanDepot Park, home of the Miami Marlins (plus 10,000 more at other sites) – to Billings, Mont., where an in-person ceremony was held for students from Montana State University at First Interstate Arena, there was no shortage of happy students and parents, regalia and yes, masks.
Hundreds more live events are on the way in the next few weeks, including several where vaccination efforts and lower COVID-19 numbers have prompted an adjustment of plans away from virtual events. Thanks to new state guidance, for example, Pepperdine University announced it will be hosting graduates and guests on May 21 and 22 at Alumni Park.
“I am very pleased that Pepperdine has been granted the opportunity to demonstrate its readiness and provide commencement ceremonies to graduates in the Classes of 2020 and 2021,” Dean Michael Feltner said in a letter to his community. “It will be great to be reunited with you in Malibu.”
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., announced on Monday it had locked in one of the most prominent speakers from this year’s ceremonies, President Joe Biden, on May 19. His Vice President, Kamala Harris, meanwhile will be speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy’s commencement in Annapolis, Md., on May 28.
In this pandemic-conscious time, many universities have turned to officials from top health organizations, such as Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (Yale, North Carolina, RPI). Washington University in St. Louis has announced it will feature Dr. Julie Gerberding, the first woman to lead the Centers for Disease Control, for its 2020 undergraduates ceremony on May 30.
The messages they deliver will send new graduates on their way into a still uncertain future, but emboldened by their accomplishments and hope for the future.
“Our nation is as its best when we realize that we all do better when we all do better,” Legend told graduates at Duke. “Embrace our shared humanity. Bring your own unique gifts to the table to engage in the real, tangible bettering of your community. There is wisdom, strength and power in the community. You’ve learned that here at Duke. But don’t forget it as you bind and build community elsewhere.”